An important question often asked by beginners is can I practice Zen without a teacher on my own? The quick answer is yes and no! Sound confusing? Well it is. Most Zen practiced today in a typical Zen center, even in a Tibetan Dharma center is seated meditation. There might be a sermon at first followed by seated meditation, not to mention a ceremony or two. If this is all the beginner is looking for, just learning how to sit, that is, do zazen, they probably don’t need a teacher. The beginner might get an excellent book on Zen, fore example, Mud & Water: The Collected Teachings of Zen Master Bassui, translated by Arthur Braverman, read a sermon and then, afterwards, meditate for about twenty-minutes.
If the beginner is not looking for the enlightenment of a Buddha (the big E), but wishes to learn how to deal with issues of stress, anxiety or anger, then a common form of Zen (Bompu Zen) might suffice which is suited for laypersons. In that case they would need to find a good Zen center with a community of support which they can participate with on a regular basis. In this setting they can go up the ladder and spend more time helping the community which can be rewarding.
For those beginners who are intrigued by the idea of seeing their true nature; who aspire to this goal, they likely need the help of a good teacher for a certain period of time, especially, a teacher who knows how to orient the student, putting them on the right path, in the right direction; not on some wild-goose chase. However there is a problem. Most good teachers tend to pick the students they want. This is because beginners just waste the time of a good teacher with trivial concerns. Their heart is not in the right place. First of all, there has to be a bond of friendship between the student and the teacher. Many Westerners, from my own experience, don’t understand how important friendship is. In Tibetan Buddhism, for example, it is a must. Unfortunately, a beginner tends to regard a Buddhist teacher as someone more like a university professor. It doesn’t work that way. Sorry.
When a beginner takes the higher and more demanding path, that is, the path to awakening to their own true nature, it is not a leisurely walk. It is more like mountain climbing in which courage and faith are demanded. The beginner has to be open to seeing what appears to be the impossible, that is, pure Mind which has no distinguishing marks whatsoever. At this stage the beginner is on their own. They might as well become a hermit—and some do.